Friday, February 10, 2012

Liars and Outliers: Thoughts on Societal Trust in Bruce Schneier's New Book

The sub title of Liars and Outliers is "Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive," and it's a good explanation of the author's direction.  He looks at how trust mechanisms work, whether you're ordering products online from people you've never met, or you're paying a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn.  In order for commerce to function, there must be a certain level of trust.

But how do we build these trust models? And what do we do when someone cheats us? Schneier labels those who don't cooperate in society as 'defectors' because they go against the rules.  Normally we might associate their behavior with lying, cheating, and stealing, but in Schneier's model, defectors can play a role in changing societies that are unjust, such as with slavery or apartheid.  I think this approach may confuse the issue somewhat, since the main point of the book is trust in a commercial sense--can you safely do business with this person or company?

The four sections of the book take us from early human culture in Part 1:  The Science of Trust, to societal pressures in Part 2:  A Model of Trust.  He goes on to Part 3:  The Real World and Part 4:  Conclusions.  I think readers may find Part 2 particularly interesting because it deals with the variety of pressures in society to conform to acceptable behavior.

Pressure exists in several forms, including:  Societal Pressure, Moral Pressure, Reputational Pressure, and Institutional Pressure.  And with humans being the way they are, we tend to combine all these factors in a given situation, calculating risk versus reward, and considering what may happen if we 'defect' in both the short term and the long term consequences.

Game theory comes into play here.  For instance, there's the Prisoner's Dilemma.  Two burglars are caught and the police put them in separate interrogation rooms.  They are each given a set of options:

1.  testify against your partner and he'll do 10 years in prison and you'll go free

2.  if you both talk, we don't need your testimonies and you both get 6 years in prison

3.  if neither burglar talks, they both go to jail for 1 year on a lesser charge.

The smart thing for each to do is not talk, and trust their partner to do the same.  One year in jail is far better than 6 or 10 years.  But the chance at no jail time means each burglar will feel compelled to act in their own interest--which means both will talk and both will do 6 years.

These kind of mental games can make your head hurt, and they aren't perfect models, but they do give us some starting points.  And that's the strength of this book--it makes you think.

And Schneier, like many a college professor, is given to colorful examples that may seem like tangents but actually illustrate his points.  Everything from the brain's use of oxygen and blood, to vampire bats, and Brazilian leafcutter ants show up in weird but useful ways. 

There are all sorts of fascinating nuggets.  Like after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, people turned in lost wallets, safes, and cash worth $78 million USD.  Or the fact that only 10% of the cells in the human body are really us, the other 90% are various symbionts that may benefit or harm us.

In a followup post, we'll look at Parts 3 and 4 of Liars and Outliers, and examine Schneier's conclusions.

(Thanks to Lori at the for the advance copy of this book.)

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